House lawmakers want Veterans Affairs officials to start talking to veterans about misinformation and extremism online.
Included in the House Appropriations Committee’s proposal for more than $270 billion in department funding next fiscal year is language focused on “the unique vulnerabilities that veterans face online,” to include targeting of veterans by extremist organizations and groups focused on sowing division in the military community.
“Efforts to spread extremist views and conspiracy theories among the veteran community have had severely damaging effects, such as spreading conspiracies that may have motivated participation in the Capitol insurrection on Jan. 6,” a report on the budget proposal states.
It also calls for the department to “establish a comprehensive, evidence-based program to educate veterans about malign influences, transition assistance to include specialized counseling services, as well as research into operations and methods to discern against disinformation.”
The specifics of what that will entail remain unclear. The budget bill is likely months away from becoming law, and the provision could be dropped during negotiations with Senate appropriators on the funding measures.
The issue of extremism in the military has been a point of focus for the Defense Department in recent months.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin ordered a 60-day stand-down so unit commanders could discuss the topic with their troops. Pentagon planners included $30.8 million in their budget request to improve screening tools and practices to weed out individuals with extremist views.
And the department is considering a new “punitive regulation on extremist activities” to further discourage such behavior.
But Veterans Affairs officials have been quieter on the issue. In May, during a press briefing at the White House, VA Secretary Denis McDonough said that leaders were looking into veterans’ involvement in the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol building, but has not announced any anti-extremism initiatives since.
The budget language calls for VA to “engage with the departments of Justice and Homeland Security, as well as civil society partners” in approaching the issue. A report on their findings would be due to Congress two months after the legislation becomes law.
Kris Goldsmith, an Army veteran and CEO of Sparverius — an intelligence firm focused on disinformation campaigns and online extremist activity — called the proposal a step in the right direction but “it leaves a lot to be desired.”
He said all lawmakers need to take the issue of radicalization of veterans more seriously, pointing to recent Republican opposition to a commission to investigate the Jan. 6 attacks and the extremist influences which motivated it.
“Republicans need to take this seriously,” he said. “This committee can play a role in prevention.”
The full House membership is expected to vote on the VA budget bill with the extremism language later this month.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.